Podcast

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?

At the beginning of a story, all heroes must want something, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily want the opportunity they are presented with. 

The relationship between what your heroes want and the actual opportunities they discover can play out in many different ways:
  • Some heroes, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, get the opportunity they've always dreamed of: Luke always wanted to run off and become a heroic space pilot, and then that opportunity presents itself in an unexpected way. 
  • For other heroes, the opportunity that appears is the opposite of what they’ve always wanted. Brody in Jaws wants to prove himself as sheriff, but the opportunity to do so arrives in the form of one of his deepest fears, going into the ocean. 
  • For others, like Sarah Connor in The Terminator, it’s more of an ironic “be careful what you wish for” situation. She drops a bunch of dishes at work and then wonders, “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” It’s just a rhetorical question, but she gets her answer in spades. 
  • Sometimes, the connection between the character's want and opportunity is even more abstract. Marty McFly in Back to the Future wants to be cooler than his lame parents. Getting sent back in time isn’t something he’s always wanted to do or something he’s always been afraid of, but when he gets there, he stumbles upon a strange opportunity to solve his problem: First he comes to understand his parents better, and then he improves their lives retroactively, solving his original problem in a very roundabout yet satisfying way. 
Beware of stories in which the character and plot arcs never intersect, because the story will never come together. This is why you need to ask yourself the next question we’ll look at.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Greatest hope: get laid, greatest fear: have to hit on women. And it’s ironic that the fear leads to his hope.

Alien

YES. Ironic answer: “Whatever happened to standard procedure?”  She finds out the pros and cons of standard procedure.

An Education

YES.  All three, the question being “Is it really worth it to get an education?”

The Babadook

YES. Greatest fear: her feelings of grief must be confronted, her bad mothering gets out of control.

Blazing Saddles

NO. We don’t find out a lot about his hopes/fears/questions.   He’s seems to be largely emotionally unaffected by his extraordinary journey, except one moment at the exact midpoint.

Blue Velvet

YES. all three.  Ironic answer: Why do there have to be people like Frank, he asks, but he’s becoming Frank.

The Bourne Identity

YES. his big question “who am I?” at first means “Who was I?”, then it become “Who do I want to be now?”

Bridesmaids

YES. Greatest fear: losing her friend. Ironic answer: she wants to get married, but has to help someone else do it.

Casablanca

YES. it’s his greatest hope, and an ironic answer to his question (Of all the bars in the world…)

Chinatown

YES. Well, his greatest suspicion, that the world is hopelessly corrupt

Donnie Brasco

YES.  both greatest hope (first Fed to be on track to be a made man) and greatest fear (loses family, almost gets turned)

Do the Right Thing

YES. Greatest fear and ironic answer to his question: The mayor says, “Do the right thing” and Mookie responds, “That’s it?” It turns out to be a tough question.

The Farewell

YES. It represents her greatest fear: That’s she’s too American for China but too Chinese for America. 

The Fighter

YES. Greatest hope: he becomes champion and ultimately doesn’t have to give up either side of his life.

Frozen

YES. Greatest hope: She finally gets to be around her sister, in a very ironic way.

The Fugitive

YES. It’s his greatest fear: losing his wife, confronting the politics of being a doctor, etc.  Also he’s afraid of being discovered as an imposter in the upper class world (worries that he’ll only look like a waiter in a tux, his wife had the real money) and then has to sink down into that world. 

Get Out

YES. Greatest hope: Someone finally loves him. Greatest fear: That he’ll be passively trapped inside a screen again, as he was when his mom died.  (But as a photographer, he hides behind a lens, so his relationship to glass is complex.) 

Groundhog Day

YES. Greatest fear and ironic answer: The first line is: “Somebody asked me today, ‘Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?’” as his hand hovers over an empty greenscreen.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Greatest hope: impressing dad. Greatest fear: having to fight dragons.

In a Lonely Place

YES. greatest hope: return of love and career passion, greatest fear: his anger goes out of control, ironic answer: he asks “what happens in the book?” then he lives it.

Iron Man

YES. Greatest fear, and ironic answer to rhetorical questions he asks about when he’d stop making weapons.

Lady Bird

YES. Her greatest hope is to leave Sacramento and be cool. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Greatest hope (have a family) and greatest fear (return to crime).

Rushmore

YES. Greatest fear: getting kicked out, Greatest hope: the love of Miss Cross.  

Selma

YES. Greatest hope: Freedom to vote, general uprising.  Greatest fear: That he will be killed and/or lose his family (which almost happens in an unexpected way)

The Shining

YES. Jack’s greatest hope (time alone to write) becomes his greatest fear (hurting his family).

Sideways

YES. It’s his greatest fear (losing his ex and his hopes of publication)

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She’s been hoping for such an opportunity and living in fear of having her past revealed.

Star Wars

YES. Greatest hope: he finally gets his chance to go be a pilot.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. his greatest fear and an ironic fulfillment of his desire for a pool.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?

Occasionally friends ask me to consult on reality TV series they’re pitching. One was about adventure travelers who go to unsafe countries, one was about Live Action Role Players, and another was about a struggling hip-hop label. Every time, I had the same advice: Someone onscreen has to be opposed to what your subjects are doing. I implored them to shoot interviews with people who disapproved of this activity. 

In each of the above cases, this advice met with resistance: “But I want to present what these people do in a positive light! I don’t want to bring negativity into it.” My argument was (and still is) that the only way to portray an activity as a positive thing is to prove your subjects are willing to overcome opposition to do it. If you just show people doing their thing and having a great time, there’s no story. If you show them doing it despite opposition, then the audience can appreciate the meaning of what they do.

“Well, okay, sure, all stories need conflict,” you might say, “but my fictional characters are more compelling than those would-be reality show stars. If I create a great fictional character who’s internally conflicted, can’t that create meaning on its own, without bringing any external conflict into it?”

It is possible to write a meaningful story in which the primary conflict is internal, not external, but it’s much harder. The only form of writing that is naturally suited to showing internal conflict is the first-person novel, but even movies can pull it off if they work really hard.

For instance, The Secret Life of Dentists, based on the novella The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley, successfully dramatizes the internal conflict of a passive protagonist. Campbell Scott plays a conflicted dentist who can’t bring himself to confront his wife about her infidelity. So how does the movie dramatize this internal struggle, this lack of action? It uses every trick in the book—voice-over, dream sequences, wish-fulfillment fantasies—but ultimately, all of these fall short, so Scott must argue with an imaginary character (Denis Leary) who represents his suppressed rage. So this movie becomes the exception that proves the rule: One way or another, conflict must be dramatized.

Even if you are writing a first-person novel, internalized stories without external conflict are hard to write well. Drama refers to interaction between characters, not conflict within a character, and drama is at the heart of great writing. Conflicted characters are great because they’re volatile, but that volatility only erupts when that conflicted character meets her match and is thereby challenged. When we pick on ourselves, we rarely do so in a surprising way. When other people pick on us, that’s when things get real.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO. Not really, and that’s fine.  He’s his own antagonist.  (Almost every woman he meets is actually willing to have sex with him: Mann, his boss, the bookstore girl, Keener, the prostitute)  Kat Denning is a bit of an antagonist, but even she joins team Andy quickly.

Alien

YES, Ash.  (Well, sort of human)

An Education

YES. Her family at first, then her teachers once her family has been co-opted.

The Babadook

YES. first the sister then Samuel.  Also the child services people.

Blazing Saddles

YES. “That’s Hedly!”

Blue Velvet

YES. many, but especially Frank.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Chris Cooper.

Bridesmaids

YES. Helen.

Casablanca

YES. pretty much everyone, especially Major Strasser.

Chinatown

YES. Noah Cross, the cops, etc.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  everybody he meets.

Do the Right Thing

YES. The hero is doing very little, but yes, Pino opposes him. 

The Farewell

YES. Everyone in the film is opposed to Billi’s wish to tell her grandma. 

The Fighter

YES. his new girlfriend won’t let him screw himself over any more.

Frozen

YES. Hans.  The movie would have been much weaker if not-really-bad Elsa was the only antagonist.

The Fugitive

YES. Gerard.

Get Out

YES. Just about everybody

Groundhog Day

Hmm… It depends on his goal. Yes, when he wants a date from Rita, otherwise not really, just himself.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. His father specifically and whole village generally, and then the final dragon.

In a Lonely Place

YES. everyone, to varying degrees.

Iron Man

YES. First the warlord, then Stane. Sometimes Pepper as well. 

Lady Bird

YES. Her mom is opposed to a lot of what she’s doing. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Lots of them.

Rushmore

YES. Dr. Guggenheim, and everybody else at one time or another. 

Selma

YES. Lots and lots. 

The Shining

NO. Not at the beginning, but yes once they’re opposed to each other.

Sideways

YES. Jack is opposed to Miles’ idea of not meeting someone, then opposed to Miles’ need to confess, Maya and Steph are opposed to his lying.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Chilton, plus Lecter, plus Bill

Star Wars

YES. Darth Vader 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Various, as his goals change.  First the repo men, then Max, then Betty, then Norma.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story present a unique central relationship?

Unique characters are overrated. Does your main character feel familiar? Good! Audiences want characters to feel familiar so they can identify with them. Besides, it’s almost impossible to come up with a unique character. There have been too many stories, and we’ve seen them all before. 

But there’s an easier way to tell a unique story. You’re going to have much better luck if you take two familiar characters and give them a believable but never-seen-before relationship. The high school outcast is a familiar archetype, but let’s put that character into a unique never-seen-in-a-story-before relationship:
  • My Bodyguard is about a high school outcast who pays a scary bully to protect him from the other kids. 
  • Rushmore is about a high school outcast who strikes up a friendship with one of his private school’s funders who feels equally alienated. 
  • Election is about a high school outcast who infuriates her teacher so much that he tries to sabotage her student government election. 
If those stories had been about watching these outcasts try to get a date with the popular kid, then they would have fallen into overly familiar territory. It’s the unique relationship, not the unique character, that makes the story great.

I’ve known a lot of strange people, but none so strange that I can’t think of a preexisting character just like them. On the other hand, I’ve had a dozen oddball relationships in my life that I’ve never seen replicated: unlikely friendships, overdivulging bosses, bizarre dates, etc.

Don’t force one dysfunctional character to generate conflict single-handedly. Allow two seemingly functional characters to set each other off in an unexpectedly dysfunctional way. Such things have happened to you, and if it’s happened to you, then it’s happened to others in the audience. They’ll happily smile in identification when they see it portrayed.

It’s fascinating to go back and rewatch the first few episodes of 30 Rock. All of the elements of greatness are there from the beginning, but the show doesn’t work yet, because the writers haven’t found their focus. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is annoyed by her boss, Jack (Alec Baldwin), and by her own employees, generating a lot of conflict, but the conflict is flat. All of the individual characters are funny, but they all have relationships we’ve seen before.

Then, suddenly, in episode six, everything snaps into place, and the show recenters itself on a new, never-before-seen-on-television relationship. In that episode, Liz reluctantly accepts an ongoing offer of mentorship from Jack, despite the fact that she’s a loosey-goosey, left-wing girl-about-town and he’s a type A, right-wing, ultrasexist alpha male. This odd but mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationship quickly becomes the heart of the show, generating dozens of unique stories and conflicts we haven’t seen before. The result is seven great seasons of television.

Think about times in your life when an acquaintance suddenly became your nemesis or a love affair took a strange left turn. If this was a fascinating relationship that we haven’t seen portrayed before, then you’ll find fresh emotions to tap into.

Can you find relationships from your life that are as incongruous as those seen in Paper Moon (a conman teams up with an eleven-year-old girl) or Midnight Run (a hard-assed bounty hunter has to escort a timid accountant)? If not, you can always invent one. Simply take two very different types of characters and force them to rely on each other in a unique way.

Rulebook Casefile: Milking the Unique Relationship in The Apartment

In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter and Miss Kubelik are both familiar types: the shnook and the strung-along other woman. But their relationship is utterly unique: She is having an affair with Baxter’s boss in his own apartment. The entire story is fueled by the uniqueness of this relationship. At first neither is aware of their unique relationship. Rather than reveal the true nature of their relationship all at once, Wilder and Diamond parcel out this reveal very gradually over the course of the movie, milking this unique relationship for all it’s worth.

What if neither Baxter nor the audience had been aware of the situation until Baxter came home one day to find Kubelik and Sheldrake, in flagrante, covering themselves up in embarrassment? That would have delivered the maximum amount of shock, but so many emotions would have come flooding out at once (for the audience, for Baxter, for Kubelick, and for Sheldrake) that the moment would have been overwhelming. Instead, screenwriters Wilder and Diamond proceed slowly and deliberately:
  • First, when we in the audience see Kubelik at the Chinese restaurant, we feel the shock of realizing that Baxter’s crush has been sleeping with another man in his own apartment, No one onscreen is experiencing this revelation at the same time we are, so we get this moment to ourselves. Now that we know more than any of the characters do, we can fully appreciate the irony of this situation... 
  • Later, Baxter recognizes Kubelik’s broken mirror at the Christmas party, and realizing that she is his boss’s mistress. Because she does not know what the mirror means to him, he gets this painful moment all to himself. 
  • Later, when Baxter finds her “asleep” in his bed, his anger flares up. Because he does not yet know she has taken too many sleeping pills, he gets to have this much-needed cathartic release, before he has to suddenly shift back to feeling sympathy for her as he tries to save her. 
  • Later, the doctor slowly wakes Kubelik up. With Baxter out of the room, she gets a moment to experience the shame of her failed suicide attempt. After that passes, she sees Baxter there and experiences an entirely different sort of shame as the final revelation finally falls into place: she realizes that she been carrying on her affair in the apartment of the man who really loves her. 
What is the result of stringing out this series of revelations so deliberately? Let’s try another “what if?”: What Baxter had discovered Kubelik trying to hang herself instead of taking pills? His anger and his instinct to save her would have kicked in at the same time and gotten mixed up with each other, plus we’d also be dealing with her shame at being discovered and her shock at realizing that this was Baxter’s apartment. The mirror and the pills allow each of these four sets of feelings to hit separately, one after another.

The unique relationship between this shnook and this other woman is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, and Wilder and Diamond milk this painful situation for all it’s worth.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, several.

Alien

YES, bickering working-class space crew.

An Education

NO. Not really…maybe with Jenny and the other moll.

The Babadook

YES. a mother and son who each think the other is a monster.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so: a black old west sheriff and an alchoholic white gunslinger.

Blue Velvet

YES. an amateur investigator in a sadomasochistic relationship with his target.

The Bourne Identity

YES. the spy and the bohemian.

Bridesmaids

YES. Rivals for the title of maid of honor.

Casablanca

YES. an expatriate bar-owner and his corrupt police chief friend.

Chinatown

YES. A detective and the woman who he was fooled into thinking he was representing.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  A ruthless undercover cop and the sad-sack mobster he targets.

Do the Right Thing

YES. a pizza delivery man and his boss.

The Farewell

YES. a girl and her grandmother when the girl is hiding from the grandmother that she’s dying.

The Fighter

YES. a boxer and his crackhead brother.

Frozen

YES. A princess and an ice merchant must team up to stop another princess.

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so: a fugitive and his Marshall.

Get Out

YES. Very much so.  We’ve never seen a pairing like Chris and Rose before, once we find out what’s really going on. 

Groundhog Day

YES. A weatherman and his producer.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. A boy and his dragon.

In a Lonely Place

YES. a romance between a man and the stranger that alibis him.

Iron Man

YES. An arms dealing billionaire and his military liaison

Lady Bird

YES. None of the relationships are tremendously unique, but they’re all original enough not to be cliché. We’ve seen relationships of the sort we see here with the mom, the dad, Julie, Jenna, Danny, and Kyle, but not with these well-observed unique details. 

Raising Arizona

YES. The couple are an ex-con and ex-cop.

Rushmore

YES. a student and his school’s funder.  

Selma

YES. Very much so: An activist and a president.

The Shining

Somewhat: we’ve seen a wife and son afraid of the dad before.  The Halloran/Danny relationship is unique.

Sideways

YES. A divorced middle-age man and his middle-aged best friend who is getting married for the first time.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. FBI and serial killer working together.

Star Wars

YES. (Unless you’ve seen Hidden Fortress) The farmboy, the mercenary, the princess, the hermit and the princess.

Sunset Boulevard

YES.